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Why we need Cardington

Comment

Post 9/11 and with the 2012 Olympics looming, the worldfamous large scale fire testing facility in the former airship hangar at Cardington has never been more vital to the UK construction industry - yet all it has yielded over the last few years is Hollywood blockbusters.

The decision to close the facility - taken by the privatised Building Research Establishment after the traumatic events of 2001 - now looks shortsighted.

Subsequent fires in tall buildings around the world and the 10,000 word report of the team investigating the collapse of the World Trade Centre, have highlighted the still enormous gaps in the industry's understanding of how structures behave in real fires. And with designers under increasing pressure to come up with ever more innovative and sustainable structures, the ability to carry out research at full scale on buildings up to eight or more storeys high is one to be cherished and nurtured, not allowed to fade away.

The first series of full scale building fire tests carried out there in the 1990s gave an enormous boost to the science of structural fire engineering, which treats fi re as just another design load on the structure. UK consultants became the world leaders in this cutting edge technology.

It promised buildings that would be structurally more effi ient, faster and cheaper to construct and ultimately more sustainable - without any compromises on fi re safety.

But the recent report by the US National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) of its investigation into the collapse of the Twin Towers failed to recommend the immediate adoption of European style fire engineering by US code drafters. Instead, it concluded that fire engineering should only be introduced when there was adequate broadly based data from large scale fire tests - and it called for the construction of a US facility where such tests could be carried out.

We had such a facility in the UK, and could have again. The BRE has found no takers for the 1930s Grade II* structure, which continues to absorb nearly £1M a year just to keep it in reasonable condition, even at a bargain asking price of little more than £4M. There is still time to save this priceless asset. And the potential rewards for doing so are massive.

Research at Cardington into the response of structures to extreme events - not just fire, but explosion, impact and earthquakes - will save lives for generations to come. Data from the tests will allow UK designers to refi e and validate their computer models, keeping them at the forefront of structural design. And at Cardington we will learn to stop depending on over-design to plug the gaps in our understanding of real fires, and learn how to design safe sustainable buildings - which will also help save the planet.

More immediately, Cardington could have a major impact on the design of 2012 Olympic structures. Long spans, lightweight structures and modular construction are expected to fi gure prominently - all of them areas where little is known about fire performance.

There is support for the reopening of Cardington right across the construction industry.

All that is needed is for the government to realise its potential value - and come up with the relatively modest investment.

Dave Parker is NCE's technical editor

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